Causes of the Franco-Prussian War

Causes of the Franco-Prussian War

The causes of the Franco-Prussian War are deeply rooted in the events surrounding balance of power after the Napoleonic Wars. France and Prussia had been combatants against each other, with France on the losing side and Napoleon I exiled to Elba. Upon the ascension of Napoleon III, which occurred as a result of a coup in France and Otto von Bismarck's becoming minister in Prussia, events soon brought them to war after the Austro-Prussian War of 1866.

European Wars and the balance of power: 1815-1866

The Austro-Prussian War and French designs

In September 1865, Napoleon III, ruler of France, met with Prussian Prime Minister Otto von Bismarck in Biarritz, France. It was there that the two men struck a deal- France would not get involved in any future actions between Prussia and Austria or ally herself with Austria if Prussia did not allow Austria to claim Venetia. When Austria and Prussia met in May 1866, Bismarck honored the agreement made in Biarritz the previous year and refused to allow Austria to have Venetia. Austria then attempted to guarantee Italy Venetia if they remained neutral, but they were unable to agree as an alliance bound them to Prussia. Napoleon III then committed a serious blunder by agreeing with Austria in a treaty to accept Venetia by allowing Austria to go to war with Prussia, a move which violated the agreement Napoleon had made with Bismarck.cite book|last=Taylor|first=A.J.P.|title=Bismarck: The Man and the Statesman|publisher=Hamish Hamilton|year=1988|pages=80-83|isbn=0-241-11565-5 ]

After Prussia emerged victorious over the Austrian army at the Battle of Königgrätz (also known as Sadowa or Sadová) in the Austro-Prussian War of 1866, negotiations were being held between Austria and Prussia between July and August of that year.cite book|last=Jerrold|first=Blanchard|title=The Life of Napoleon III|publisher=Longmans, Green & Co.|year=1882|pages=327] Unfortunately for Napoleon III, it was during this period that he first discovered that a bladder stone was causing him great pains, created from gonorrheal infection.cite book|last=Bresler|first=Fenton|title=Napoleon III: A Life|publisher=Carroll & Graf|year=1999|pages=324-325] His condition was so bad during these precious negotiations that he was forced to retire to Vichy to recuperate, removing himself from Paris. Although the emperor favored neutrality as to not to upset events, certain members of his circle thought it was an unwise move, considering the opportunity to prevent Prussia from becoming too strong. One of these men, foreign minister Édouard Drouyn de Lhuys, convinced the emperor to plant 80,000 men on the eastern border to convince William I to maintain the balance of power in Europe. Despite this important victory, de Lhuys was subverted by several other ministers, and Napoleon III changed his mind, reverting back to a position of neutrality. This change of heart would end up causing de Lhuys to ultimately lose his position. [Jerrold(1883). pp. 327-330] Napoleon III's wife Empress Eugénie, who took an active part throughout his rule, referred to this time much later as "the critical date, the Empire's fatal date; it was during these months of July and August that our fate was sealed! Of all that period, there is not a single fact, not a single detail that has not remained in my mind." [Bresler(1999). p. 340]

Franz Joseph of Austria accepted Bismarck's terms under the Peace of Prague. The terms of the agreement forced the Hapsburgs in Austria to renounce their claim to German lands. Using this to his advantage, Bismarck declared the German Confederation of 1815 null and void, and created a new network of states under Prussian control. Frankfurt-am-Main, Hannover, Hesse-Kassel (or Hesse-Cassel), Holstein, Nassau, and Schleswig were annexed outright while Hesse-Darmstadt, Mecklenburg, Saxony, the Thuringian duchies, as well as the cities of Bremen, Hamburg, and Lubeck were combined into a new North German Confederation that governed nominally and was actually controlled by Prussia herself.cite book|last=Wawro|first=Geoffrey|title=The Franco-Prussian War: The German Conquest of France in 1870-1871|publisher=Cambridge University Press|year=2003|pages=16|isbn=0-521-58436-1]

Bismarck was approached soon after the end of the war by Napoleon III's ambassador to Prussia, Vincent Benedetti. Benedetti brought with him a secret proposal by Napoleon III that France would approve of Bismarck's acquisition of the northern German states and their control over the southern German states if Prussia remained neutral while France annexed Belgium and Luxembourg. France had earlier guaranteed the independence of Belgium in the Treaty of London in 1839 as an "independent and perpetually neutral state", making the proposal a tacit agreement to break their promise. Bismarck was very surprised since he had already gained a powerful position in Europe by the armistice, and called Napoleon III's request among others later "like 'an innkeeper's bill' or a waiter asking for 'a tip'." He asked Benedetti to provide the proposal in writing, and the ambassador obliged his request. This document was to be of important use to Bismarck later on, to great effect. [Bresler(1999). pp. 338-339]

The true views of Napoleon III on the subject of the balance of power in Europe can be found in a state circular handed to every diplomatic representative for France. In this paper dated September 1, 1866, the emperor saw the future of Europe after the Peace of Prague in this manner:

:"Policy should rise superior to the narrow and mean prejudices of a former age. The Emperor does not believe that the greatness of a country depends upon the weakness of the nations which surround it, and he sees a true equilibrium only in the satisfied aspirations of the nations of Europe. In this, he is faithful to old convictions and to the traditions of his race. Napoleon I foresaw the changes which are now taking place on the continent of Europe. He had sown the seeds of new nationalities: in the Peninsula, when he created the Kingdom of Italy; and in Germany, when he abolished two hundred and fifty three separate states." [Jerrold(1882) p. 332]

Domestic agendas in France and Prussia

French prestige and politics

France's position in Europe was now in danger of being overshadowed by the emergence of a powerful Prussia, and France looked increasingly flat-footed following Bismarck's successes. In addition, French ruler Napoleon III was on increasingly shaky ground in domestic politics. Having successfully overthrown the Second Republic and established the Bonapartist Second Empire, Napoleon III was confronted with ever more virulent demands for democratic reform from leading republicans such as Jules Favre [cite book|last=Martin|first=Henri|coauthors=Abby Langdon Alger|title=A Popular History of France from the First Revolution to the Present Time|publisher=D. Estes and C.E. Lauriat|year=1882|pages=491-492] , along with constant rumours of impending revolution. In addition, French aspirations in Mexico had suffered a final defeat with the execution of the Austrian-born, French puppet Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico in 1867. [Bresler(1999), p. 345]

The French imperial government now looked to a diplomatic success to stifle demands for a return to either a republic or a Bourbon monarchy. A war with Prussia and resulting territorial gains in the Rhineland and later Luxembourg and Belgium seemed the best hope to unite the French nation behind the Bonapartist dynasty. With the resulting prestige from a successful war, Napoleon III could then safely suppress any lingering republican or revolutionary sentiment behind reactionary nationalism and return France to the center of European politics. [Wawro(2003), p. 30]

Bismarck and German nationalism

Prussia in turn was also beset with problems. While revolutionary fervour was far more muted than in France, Prussia had in 1866 acquired millions of new citizens as a result of the Austro-Prussian War, [Wawro(2003), p. 17] which was also a civil war among German states. The remaining German kingdoms and principalities maintained a steadfastly parochial attitude towards Prussia and German unification. The German princes insisted upon their independence and balked at any attempt to create a federal state that would be dominated by Berlin. Their suspicions were heightened by Prussia's quick victory and subsequent annexations. [Taylor(1988), pp. 84-85.] Before the war, only some Germans, inspired by the recent unification of Italy, accepted and supported what the princes began to realise, that Germany must unite in order to preserve the fruit of an eventual victory. [Taylor(1988), pp. 70-71.]

Von Bismarck had an entirely different view after the war in 1866- he was interested only in strengthening Prussia through the eyes of a staunch realist. Uniting Germany appeared immaterial to him unless it improved Prussia's position. [Taylor(1988), pp. 86-87.] Bismarck had mentioned before the war about the possibility of ceding territory along the Rhine to France, and Napoleon III, urged by his representatives in France, used these casual references by Bismarck to press for more territory from Prussia they had received from Austria. These discussions, leaked by Bismarck to the German states in the south, turned former enemies into allies almost overnight, receiving not only written guarantees but armies that would be under the control of Prussia. [Taylor(1988), pp. 88-89.]

Alliances and diplomacy

German states

Diplomatically and militarily, Napoleon III looked for support from Austria, Denmark, Bavaria, Baden, and Württemberg, as all had recently lost wars against Prussia. However, Napoleon III failed to secure revanchist alliances from these states. Denmark had twice fought Prussia during the First and Second Wars of Schleswig (a stalemate in the 1848–50, and a defeat in 1864 against a confederation of North German states and Austria under the leadership of Prussia), and was unwilling to confront Prussia again. As part of the settlement of the Austro-Prussian War in 1866, secret treaties of mutual defense were signed between Prussia and Bavaria, Baden, and Württemberg. What made them especially significant was that not only were they secret, giving Napoleon III a false sense of security, but Bismarck had used Napoleon III's earlier demand of territory along the Rhine to drive the southern German states into his arms. By these treaties, Prussia would defend all of the southern German states with her military power as long as their states joined the Northern Confederation in defense of Prussia. It was a bargain that would gravely threaten the French "empereur" and his designs on restoring French pride. [cite book|last=Robertson|first=Charles Grant|title=Bismarck|publisher=H. Holt and Co.|year=1919|pages=220-221]

Austria and Italy

Austria wanted to avenge the defeat of 1866, but would not support France unless Italy was part of the alliance. Victor Emmanuel II and the Italian government wanted to support France, but Italian public opinion was bitterly opposed so long as Napoleon III kept a French garrison in Rome protecting Pope Pius IX, thereby denying Italy the possession of its capital (Rome had been declared capital of Italy in March 1861, when the first Italian Parliament had met in Turin). Napoleon III made various proposals for resolving the Roman Question, but Pius IX rejected them all. Raffaele De Cesare, an Italian journalist, political scientist, and author, noted that:

"The alliance, proposed two years before 1870, between France, Italy, and Austria, was never concluded because Napoleon III … would never consent to the occupation of Rome by Italy. ... He wished Austria to avenge Sadowa, either by taking part in a military action, or by preventing South Germany from making common cause with Prussia. ... If he could insure, through Austrian aid, the neutrality of the South German States in a war against Prussia, he considered himself sure of defeating the Prussian army, and thus would remain arbiter of the European situation. But when the war suddenly broke out, before anything was concluded, the first unexpected French defeats overthrew all previsions, and raised difficulties for Austria and Italy which prevented them from making common cause with France. Wörth and Sedan followed each other too closely. The Roman question was the stone tied to Napoleon's feet — that dragged him into the abyss. He never forgot, even in August 1870, a month before Sedan, that he was a sovereign of a Catholic country, that he had been made Emperor, and was supported by the votes of the conservatives and the influence of the clergy; and that it was his supreme duty not to abandon the Pontiff. […] For twenty years Napoleon III had been the true sovereign of Rome, where he had many friends and relations […] Without him the temporal power would never have been reconstituted, nor, being reconstituted, would have endured." [cite book|last=De Cesare|first=Raffaele|title=The Last Days of Papal Rome|publisher=Archibald Constable & Co.|year=1909|pages=439-443]


In addition to the problems facing Napoleon III in obtaining potential allies, Bismarck worked feverishly to isolate France from the other European powers. Since 1863, Bismarck had made efforts to cultivate Russia, co-operating, amongst other things, in dealing with Polish insurgents. This important move gained for Bismarck the neutrality of Russia if Prussia went to war, and it also prevented Austria from taking sides with France as Austria fully supported the Poles. [cite book|last=Holt|first=Lucius Hudson|coauthors=Alexander Wheeler|title=The History of Europe from 1862 to 1914: From the Accession of Bismarck to the Outbreak of the Great War|publisher=Macmillan|year=1917|pages=69-70, 127] When Alexander II came to France on an official visit in 1867, he was the victim in an assassination attempt by Polish-born Anton Berezovski while riding with Napoleon III and the Empress Eugenie. Alexander was very offended that not only had the French courts given him imprisonment and not death, but the French press had sided with Berezovski rather than himself. This experience forever shattered his views of France, and saw in the reaction his visit had received why his father had despised the French. [cite book|last=Radzinsky|first=Edvard|title=Alexander II: The Last Great Tsar|publisher=Simon and Schuster|year=2005|pages=200] In 1868 he held discussions with the Russians, intending to counter a possible Austrian alliance with Napoleon III by Franz Joseph. If German forces were, for any reason, bogged down in the west, then Prussia's eastern and southern flanks would have been highly vulnerable. With his usual skill, Bismarck moved carefully to sidestep the nightmare. The Russian government even went so far as to promise to send an army of 100,000 men against the Austrians if the country joined France in a war against Prussia. Whilst at Ems in the crucial summer of 1870 Wilhelm I and Bismarck had meetings with Tsar Alexander, also present in the spa town. Alexander, though not naturally pro-German, became very comfortable with Prussian suggestions. [cite book|last=Kleinschmidt|first=Arthur|title=Drei Jahrhunderte russischer Geschichte|publisher=J. Räde|year=1898|pages=425] Bismarck also had talks at Ems with Alexander Mikhailovich Gorchakov, the Russian Foreign Minister, and was assured in mid July, days before the French declaration of war, that the agreement of 1868 still held: in the event of Austrian mobilisation, the Russians confirmed that they would send 300,000 troops into Galicia. [cite book|last=Jelavich|first=Barbara|title=Russia and the Formation of the Romanian National State, 1821-1878|publisher=Cambridge University Press|year=2004|pages=202] Bismarck now had all he wanted: a counter to Austria and the assurance of a one-front war.

United Kingdom

Bismarck then made Benedetti's earlier draft public to "The Times" in London that demanded Belgium and Luxembourg as the price for remaining neutral during the Austro-Prussian War. The United Kingdom in particular took a decidedly cool attitude to these French demands, and the British people were disturbed by this subversive attempt at going back on Napoleon III's word. Therefore, Britain as a nation did nothing to aid France. The Prime Minister, William Gladstone, expressed his thoughts on the matter to Queen Victoria by writing to her that "Your majesty will, in common with the world, have been shocked and startled." [Bresler(1999), pp. 338-339.] Though it had enjoyed some time as the leading power of continental Europe, the French Empire found itself dangerously isolated.

Monarchial crises

Luxembourg crisis

The king of the Netherlands, William III, was under a personal union with Luxembourg that guaranteed its sovereignty. Napoleon III had taken note that the king had amassed certain personal debts that would make a sale of Luxembourg to France possible. He had estimated that there would be little trouble acquiring such a territory as the people were not of German stock, and the Prussian army defending its southern border would have to be removed at some point. However, Luxembourg lies astride one of the principal invasion routes an army would use to invade either France or Germany from the other. The city of Luxembourg's fortifications were considered "the Gibraltar of the North", and neither side could tolerate the other controlling such a strategic location.

The pressure on Bismarck to object not only came from his monarch William I, but from Chief of Staff of the Prussian army Helmuth von Moltke. Moltke had additional reason to object- he desired war with France, stating flatly that "Nothing could be more welcome to us than to have now the war that we must have." [Taylor(1988) pp. 104-105] Bismarck balked at such talk about war. He refused to actually engage France on the basis that he firmly believed that Prussia would gain a far more decisive advantage by merely opposing the sale, and that Napoleon III could be thwarted due to his fear of war with Prussia. [Taylor(1988) pp. 107-108]

Assuming that Bismarck would not object, the French government was shocked to learn that instead Bismarck, Prussia and the North German Confederation were threatening war should the sale be completed. Napoleon III had let precious months peel away in trying to complete the transaction, allowing Bismarck time to rally support to Prussia's objection. [Wawro(2003) pp. 22-23.] To mediate the dispute, the United Kingdom hosted the London Conference (1867) attended by all European great powers. It confirmed Luxembourg's independence from the Netherlands and guaranteed its independence from all other powers. War appeared to have been averted, at the cost of thwarting French desires. [Taylor(1988) p. 106]

The Hohenzollern crisis and the Ems Dispatch

The Spanish throne had been vacant since the revolution of September 1868, and the Spanish offered the throne to the German prince Leopold of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, a Catholic as well as a distant cousin of King Wilhelm of Prussia. Leopold and Wilhelm I were both uninterested, but the wily Bismarck was acutely interested as it was an opportunity to once again best Napoleon III. Bismarck persuaded Leopold's father to accept the offer for his nation, and it was accepted instead by Leopold himself in June 1870. [Wawro(2003), p. 34.]

Fearing that a Hohenzollern king in Prussia and another one in Spain would put France into a two-front situation, France this time was determined to stand up to the expansion of Prussian influence. Napoleon III at this time was suffering the most unbearable pain from his stones, [Bresler(1999), pp. 357-358.] and the Empress Eugénie essentially was charged with countering the designs of Prussia. She had a vital interest in the crisis as she was of Spanish blood and a member of the royal line. The secretary of foreign affairs, Duc Antoine de Gramont, was directed by the Empress to be the principal instrument by which France would press for war should Leopold ascend the throne. Gramont delivered a speech in front of the "Chambre législative", proclaiming that "We shall know how to fulfill our duty without hesitation and without weakness." The fatal mistake would soon come as a result of Gramont's inexperience, for he counted on alliances that only existed in his mind. [Wawro(2003), pp. 35-36.]

With Bismarck vacationing at his country estate in Varzin and the crisis now intensified by France, ambassador Benedetti strongly urged Wilhelm I to talk Leopold into giving up the candidacy. Prussian senior foreign minister Baron von Werther, just back from Paris, agreed with Benedetti and supported peace. Without Bismarck to intercede, King Wilhelm asked for and got the prince to withdraw from his Spanish candidacy. [Wawro(2003), pp. 33, 35.]

Disappointed that the Prussians had backed down so easily, the French government tried to prolong the crisis. In a newspaper interview, Napoleon III announced that a renewal of the Hohenzollern candidature would result in France going to war. Benedetti was then ordered to obtain a guarantee from Wilhelm I that the candidacy would never be renewed. [cite book|last=Langer|first=William L.|title=An Encyclopedia of World History|isbn=0-395-13592-3|publisher=Houghton Mifflin Company|year=1972|pages=736] When the French ambassador bypassed diplomatic channels and directly confronted the king at his holiday resort, King Wilhelm was "very polite but cooly categorical" in denying the French ultimatum. The king then sent a message to Berlin reporting this event with the French ambassador, and Bismarck shrewdly edited it to make it "like a red tag to the bull" for the French government. [Bresler(1999), p. 363] The dispatch was edited as follows (with the words sent in bold):

"Count Benedetti spoke to me on the promenade, in order to demand from me, finally in a very importunate manner, that I should authorize him to telegraph at once that I bound myself for all future time never again to give my consent if the Hohenzollerns should renew their candidature." "I refused at last somewhat sternly, as it is neither right nor possible to undertake engagements of this kind à tout jamais. Naturally I told him that I had as yet received no news, and as he was earlier informed about Paris and Madrid than myself, he could clearly see that my government once more had no hand in the matter. His Majesty has since received a letter from the Prince." "His Majesty" "having told Count Benedetti that he was awaiting news from the Prince," "has decided" "with reference to the above demand, upon the representation of Count Eulenburg and myself," "not to receive Count Benedetti again, but only to let him be informed through an aide-de-camp that his Majesty" "had now received from the Prince confirmation of the news which Benedetti had already received from Paris, and" "had nothing further to say to the ambassador." "His Majesty leaves it to your Excellency whether Benedetti’s fresh demand and its rejection should not be at once communicated both to our ambassadors and to the press." [Bresler(1999), pp. 363-364.]

This dispatch made the encounter more heated than it really was. Known as the Ems Dispatch, it was released to the press. It was designed to give the French the impression that King Wilhelm I had insulted the French Count Benedetti, and to give the Prussian people the impression that the Count had insulted the King. It succeeded in both of its aims- Gramont called it "a blow in the face of France", and the members of the French legislative body spoke of taking "immediate steps to safeguard the interests, the security, and the honor of France." [Bresler(1999), pp. 364-365.] France officially declared war on 19 July 1870, a few hours after the speeches were delivered. According to the secret treaties signed with Prussia and in response to popular opinion, Bavaria, Baden, and Württemberg mobilised their armies and joined the war against France. [Howard(1991), p. 60.]



*Baumont, Maurice. "Gloires et tragédies de la IIIe République". Hachette, 1956.
*Bresler, Fenton. "Napoleon III: A Life". New York: Carroll & Graf, 1999. ISBN 0-7867-0660-0
*De Cesare, Raffaele. "The Last Days of Papal Rome". Archibald Constable & Co, 1909.
*Howard, Michael. "The Franco-Prussian War: The German Invasion of France 1870–1871". New York: Routledge, 2001. ISBN 0-415-26671-8
*Jelavich, Barbara. "Russia and the Formation of the Romanian National State, 1821-1878". Cambridge University Press, 2004.
*Jerrold, Blanchard. "The Life of Napoleon III". Longmans, Green & Co.,1882.
*Kleinschmidt, Arthur. "Drei Jahrhunderte russischer Geschichte". J. Räde, 1898.
*Martin, Henri; Abby Langdon Alger. "A Popular History of France from the First Revolution to the Present Time". D. Estes and C.E. Lauriat, 1882.
*Nolte, Frédérick. "L'Europe militaire et diplomatique au dix-neuvième siècle, 1815-1884" E. Plon, Nourrit et ce, 1884.
*Radzinsky, Edvard. "Alexander II: The Last Great Tsar". Simon and Schuster, 2005.
*Robertson, Charles Grant. "Bismarck". H. Holt and Co, 1919.
*Taithe, Bertrand. "Citizenship and Wars: France in Turmoil 1870-1871". Routledge, 2001.
*Taylor, A.J.P. "Bismarck: The Man and the Statesman". London: Hamish Hamilton, 1988. ISBN 0-241-11565-5
*Wawro, Geoffrey. "The Franco-Prussian War: The German Conquest of France in 1870-1871" Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. ISBN 0-521-58436-1

External links

* [ Postcards from the Franco-German War 1870/71]
* [ Texts and documents about German-French relations and an essay on the Franco-German war]

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